Both as a meditation instructor and as a psychotherapist, I've had people tell me that mindfulness practice appears to work for awhile, and then nothing seems to be happening. They wonder if they are doing something wrong in their practice or if there's something wrong with them personally. The same questions may also arise for my clients with respect to their experience in therapy. Let's look first at meditation and then at therapeutic experience.
Everyone's meditation practice unfolds differently. There may be a sense of peacefulness and a feeling of coming home to oneself, especially in the beginning. That was my own experience. I had been feeling intensely anxious, and meditation practice let me sit down and just be with myself and my anxiety without adding anything extra to it. Rather quickly, I was able to see the difference between my direct sensory experience of fear and the extra thoughts I was adding on top. I could feel the shakiness in body, the sadness in my heart, the fear in my thoughts. It was an enormous gift to feel the relief that came from the natural slowing down of my mind's momentum that came with just sitting still and noticing my experience in the present moment.
Many have similar experiences. Such a "honeymoon" period of calm may go on for a short time or for quite awhile. Others may feel excited at the prospect of beginning a mediation practice. For still others, their mindfulness practice starts off feeling like a struggle.
Whatever one's own experience, if one practices mindfulness meditation long enough, sooner or later most people find that there's a sense of "not much happening." They may feel bored or flat. What's going on? Are we doing it wrong?
As our minds begin to settle down in mindfulness practice, and as we increasingly see our thoughts as just thoughts, we are less likely to get caught up in them. There is a sense of more space in our minds. Our usual habit is to fill up the space in our minds. We get busy. Especially in the West, we turn to entertainment, work, social media and a bevy of other distractions. But on our meditation cushions, we have chosen not to indulge in our usual activities. Instead we have chosen to get to know who and what we are without diversion.
Contemplative Psychotherapy describes the nature of our minds as "Brilliant Sanity." (See, for example, my blog entry from October 13, 2009.) Brilliant sanity is regarded as who we most fundamentally are. It has three main qualities: clarity, compassion, and spaciousness. When we are not confusing ourselves by trying to hold on to a confused and mistaken sense of ourselves (see blog entry from December 13, 2009 for more on "mistaken identity), our true brilliant sanity nature shines through. We become more clear, accurate and mindful. We discover or uncover our essentially kind hearts. And, of importance for this question about boredom or flatness, we realize the spaciousness of our minds.
Spaciousness refers to our ability to accommodate any experience in our minds. We can include anything that arises: physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, and images. The mind can experience them all and still have a sense of what Charlotte Joko Beck called "A Bigger Container." When we have the space to see that our thoughts are just thoughts, we don't buy into them so much. We find some freedom from our usual internal monologues and worries. But, then what do we find?
That very space that we've uncovered and that's brought us relief is, in itself, not terribly interesting. Nothing much is going on. It can seem calm and peaceful. Equally, it can seem flat and even boring. Growing up in the West, I certainly learned that boring was bad. But, what's the problem, really? Nothing's going on. So what?
The same kinds of issues can arise for my clients in therapy. As we work through the painful issues that have brought them into therapy, it is not uncommon for them to discover a similar sense of spaciousness. With one client, she began by not wanting to be "ordinary." As we explored further what this meant to her, we found that ordinary meant boring, and boring meant inadequate, uninteresting, unattractive, and unlovable. We worked with the direct experience of boredom. What she found was that it was just openness, just simple presence. For this particular client who had grown up in a chaotic, alcoholic family, the discovery of ordinariness and boredom turned out to be exactly what she had been craving. She was surprised to see that feeling bored was actually okay. She began to see ordinariness as a positive thing.
Another client, a man I worked with some years ago, also found relief in the experience of boredom. He had been driving himself to exhaustion by keeping busy in order to avoid boredom. Like so many of us he had avoided boredom without ever questioning whether it needed to be avoided.
Instead, he learned to bring mindfulness to the actual experience that he was calling boredom. He was delighted to discover that he was using that label for many different things. He began to notice the subtleties of his experience. Sometimes it was openness and peacefulness; other times it was a kind of blankness; still other times it was a restlessness.
In meditation, we use the term "cool boredom" for the sense of not much happening. It is not regarded as a problem. Nothing needs fixing. I sometimes tell meditation students and clients that "We're all boring." If we sit with ourselves long enough, on a meditation cushion or in a therapeutic relationship, we discover that often nothing big is going on. We have discovered boredom. And a good thing it is, too!